Is She Real, or Is She Fictional?

A look at some famous women through history. Do you know who's real and who's not?

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid #329
September 25, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Once again we're going to put pop culture to the test. Today we've got a list of twenty four women, nearly all of whom you've probably heard of, and some of whom you're probably not sure if they are real people from history or fictional characters. You may know most of them, but I guarantee every listener that one or more will surprise you. Let's begin with perhaps the most famous woman from all of history:

Helen of Troy

The face that launched a thousand ships

Fictional. Although there is some scholarly support for the claim that the Trojan War may have actually happened in some form (probably around the 12th century BCE), almost of of its details — the Trojan Horse and the beautiful Helen whose abduction triggered the war — are purely literary inventions from classic Greek mythology. Although her earliest appearances in print are from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, we think Homer drew her from oral legends dating back from more than a thousand years before the Trojan War.

Molly Pitcher

Battlefield assistant

Real. During the American Revolutionary War, Mary "Molly" McCauley was one of many women who attended George Washington's army, cooking, washing, and caring for the sick. During battles they would fetch pitchers of water to the artillerymen, both for drinking and for cooling the cannon. When her husband was injured during the Battle of Monmouth, Molly took over his post loading and swabbing a cannon. For her service, General Washington made her a sergeant.

Guinevere

King Arthur's queen

Fictional. Arthurian legend goes back at least a thousand years, and neither Arthur, Camelot, nor any of the other characters are believed to have been real people, despite centuries of scholarly speculation. Surprisingly, in the older tellings of the canon, Guinevere is usually portrayed as a temptress, her name meaning the White Enchantress, and it is the source of the modern girl's name Jennifer.

Scheherazade

Persian storyteller

Fictional. This narrator of the ancient classic One Thousand and One Nights began as just another of the king's virgins, one of whom he married each day and executed the next. She kept saved herself by telling him the first half of a story each night, persuading him to let her see each new dawn so that he could hear the other half. By the time she told all thousand and one tales, the king had fallen in love with her and ceased his cruelty.

Jane Eyre

English feminist

Fictional. She was the title character of Charlotte Brontë's novel of a woman growing up in a male-dominated culture, and with the exception of a number of parallels to Brontë's own life, is fictitious. The cover of an 1898 edition was illustrated with Wycoller Hall, near where Brontë grew up, and was occupied by an Elizabeth Eyre.

Salome

Ancient seductress

Probably real. Although she's best known only from Bible stories for bearing the head of John the Baptist back from his execution, and for her provocative dance known to modern fiction as the Dance of the Seven Veils, the Roman historian Josephus does describe her as a granddaughter of King Herod the Great. Whatever dancing she may have done didn't make it into Josephus' records.

Annie Oakley

Crack sharpshooter

Real. As a small girl she supported her mother and siblings by hunting game for food and to sell, and got so good that by age 15 she went up against a traveling exhibition shooter, and beat him. They soon married and her career was established, leading her to 15 years with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. She once shot a cigarette held by Kaiser Wilhelm; after World War I broke out, she wrote him and requested a second shot.

Calamity Jane

American frontierswoman

Real. Martha Jane Canary was a drunken, brawling heroine in the best pulp fiction tradition, well known and well liked for her hard work and good deeds. Many of her most storied exploits, such as Indian fighting and scouting for the Army, have come under suspicion of fabrication. She's best known for her relationship with Wild Bill Hickok, a relationship which was probably entirely one-sided; and so upon her death, friends of Bill's played one last joke upon him by burying Jane right next to him.

Cleopatra

Egyptian queen

Real. Although she's been swamped with fiction, the real Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt. She was of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Greek pharaohs who reigned Egypt after it was conquered by Alexander the Great. She had relationships with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, with whom she sided after Caesar's assassination. The combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra lost a decisive naval battle to Caesar's successor Octavius, and both Antony and Cleopatra committed ritual suicide, Cleopatra choosing snakebite.

Moll Flanders

18th century con artist

Fictional. She was the title character of Daniel DeFoe's famous novel, and was entirely fictitious. So fictitious, in fact, that most modern adaptations for the screen bear almost no resemblance to the original book. Be skeptical of film adaptations.

Harriet Tubman

Slave underground conductor

Real. Born a slave between 1820 and 1825, she escaped as a young woman and made at least thirteen secret journeys from Philadelphia back into Maryland, first to rescue the members of her family, and then to rescue at least 70 others. She worked as a guide for the Union army during the Civil War and rescued hundreds more. She did all this while suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, acquired as a young girl as the result of a beating.

The Amazons

Race of lady warriors

Probably fictional. Although they're frequently mentioned in ancient history texts fighting Greeks and Romans, they're even more frequently mentioned in classical mythology and no firm evidence has ever shown that their kingdom actually existed. Their homeland was always given as somewhere far away, sometimes Asia, sometimes Scythia, sometimes Turkey. Stories say their mothers cauterized one breast at birth so that it never developed; sometimes the left to facilitate archery, sometimes the right intending to strengthen the sword arm.

Boudica

Roman-repelling British queen

Real. In the first century, Boudica's husband the King of Iceni died, and Rome annexed the kingdom. After being flogged and driven from her home, Boudica rallied the Britons and led them in several victories against the occupying forces, but ultimately fell to the Roman soldiers' skill and superior weapons despite their greater numbers. Accounts are unreliable, but probably tens of thousands of Boudica's Britons died compared to only a few hundred Romans.

Anna Karenina

Russian 19th century aristocrat

Fictional. She is the title character of Leo Tolstoy's great novel, which is a work of pure fiction, not based on any actual person. Her being mistaken for a real figure from history is perhaps due to so many authors and critics who consider Anna Karenina the greatest novel ever written. Personally, I couldn't get through Part I.

Rosie the Riveter

Word War II manufacturing icon

Fictional, though representative of the unknown millions of actual American women who worked in factories to support the war effort. Their nickname came from the title of a popular song released in 1942 in celebration of their contribution.

Lizzie Borden

Suspected patricidal murderer

Real. Although she was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, Lizzie never escaped the stigma of being the suspected killer. She and her sister Emma inherited their father's considerable fortune and lived out their lives in luxury.

Brünnhilde

Norse shieldmaiden

Fictional. She was a character in the Saga of the Völsungs, of which the earliest surviving depictions come from about the year 1000, relating a tale probably centuries older, of a condemned princess. The character's name was probably inspired by the actual Visigothic princess Brunhilda of Austrasia. Only in newer adaptations of the saga, most notably the Wagner operas, did Brünnhilde also become a Valkyrie, a sort of minor goddess who decided who lives and who dies in battles.

Tokyo Rose

Word War II propaganda radio host

Fictional, though used collectively to refer to all such broadcasters. One front of the Japanese war on American marines was over the radio, attracting them with popular American music and sultry English-speaking female DJs, to spread demoralizing messages and encourage surrender. It wasn't too effective; the men generally found it hilarious and loved to listen.

Queen of Sheba

Ancient ruler

Probably real, although it's not known for sure where Sheba was. It may have been the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, now Yemen. There's sufficient documentary evidence to support her authenticity, though precious thin archaeological evidence. Through a synthesis of both scriptural and secular histories, we can deduce that she probably ruled about 1000 BCE.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Mulan

Chinese soldier, star of the Disney film who took her father's place

Probably real, though not certain. She probably lived during the Northern Wei dynasty around the fifth century, fighting for the Khan, as northern China was not under Imperial rule. After twelve years of distinguished service, her comrades accompanied her home. In an early poetic account, that was the first moment her comrades realized she was a girl.

Lady Godiva

Nude equestrian

Real. We're fairly certain which of the several possible 11th century Lady Godivas she was, the wife of a wealthy benefactor. The legend is less clear. She rode either naked or wearing plain rather than noble clothing, either in solidarity with the poor or in protest of her husband's high taxes. Later versions of the story added Peeping Tom, who violated her proclamation that nobody should look and took a peep, and was blinded for the crime.

Typhoid Mary

Disease vector

Real. Mary Mallon was a cook in New York City in the early 1900s, and was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. The law required carriers to be imprisoned in isolation wards, which Mary was twice, changing her name and moving around and resuming her work as a cook, insisting that she was disease free. The law finally caught up with her and she eventually died in isolation, a minor celebrity. Between three and fifty people are believed to have died from her infected meals.

Mata Hari

Exotic dancer and super spy

Real. Notorious for her provocative photographs and social climbing, Dutch citizen Margreet Zelle (stage name Mata Hari) traveled Europe throughout World War I. She was arrested in France, accused of spying for Germany, and executed by firing squad in 1917 at the age of 41. She refused a blindfold. Documents unsealed in 1970 proved that she truly was employed by Germany, and further documents scheduled to be unsealed in 2017 should settle the long-standing rumor that she was a double agent also employed by France.

Maid Marian

Robin Hood's love interest

Fictional, but via a different path than her equally fictional outlaw. Marian did not appear in the earliest versions of Robin Hood lore, but was a separate character in her own right associated with the May Games festivities around Whitsunday, as early as the 1200s. As Robin Hood began to also be celebrated during the May Games, the two were naturally brought together in the folklore sometime in the 1500s.

Note that the further back you go into history, the fuzzier the facts become; and although the preceding answers represent our best estimations, it's possible — even probable if not certain — that one or more of these is wrong. That's where the real excitement of research comes from: the knowledge that some of what we think we know is wrong. Some of these ladies who we think contributed to our history actually did nothing but garnish the pages of fiction, and vice versa. We should all heed the advice of Indiana Jones' nemesis Belloq: "Who knows, in a thousand years, even you may be worth something."

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carpenter, T. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Dong, L. Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Knight, S. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994.

Markale, J. King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and Celtic Tradition. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1994.

Miller, B. Buffalo Gals: Women of the Old West. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1995.

Schütte, G. "The Nibelungen Legend and its Historical Basis." Journal of English and German Philology. 1 Jan. 1921, Number 20: 291-327.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Is She Real, or Is She Fictional?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 25 Sep 2012. Web. 24 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4329>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 47 comments

10 out of 10 for danR..Its a good observation

just the anglsised/latinised "J" would only bother Josephus ...right?...well only in @ 65CE before he weaseled out to be an eventual Flavian...

Jump??? from where...Knife???no, thats pointy...I surrender, you can call me Bob if you like!

Pedantry always has an irritating bod following it..

Mud (Dr Syd), sin seetee, Oz
November 15, 2012 9:03am

Great episode as always, Brian!

One point of contention - I have read in various places that Rosie the Riveter is indeed a "real" person, in the sense that the drawing she was originally depicted in drew on an actual face.

According to CNN, her name was Geraldine Hoff Doyle, and during a brief two week factory job she took, she was photographed by J. Howard Miller whilst wearing a red polkadot bandanna. He took her face and based the character of Rosie the Riveter around it, creating the iconic poster we all know, and Geraldine apparently dint even find out herself until decades later.

Would this make Rosie the Riveter "real" in the sense you're referring to?

Also, can you speak to the veracity of this story? I'm afraid my schedule leaves me little time for independant research, but I'm awfully curious. I understand CNN is not necessarily the most reliable source.

Love the show, and thanks!

Here's the link: http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2010/12/30/geraldine-hoff-doyle-we-can-do-it-poster-inspiration-dies-at-86/?hpt=C2

Andrew Bird, Los Angeles, CA, USA
November 23, 2012 1:35pm

I've got to agree with those who say that Tokyo Rose was real, just like Axis Sally.

It's certainly true that Tokyo Rose wasn't a single person.

But by the same token "Ann Landers" isn't real - it's just a pen name for an advice column which has been written by a couple of women over the years.

To stretch it a point further "George Elliot" isn't real - it's Mary Anne Evans's pen name.

Certainly nobody named their child "Tokyo Rose", but it was more of a title than a specific person.

Phil, Apopka
November 28, 2012 10:19pm

Always remember that the NT is written after historians got to the history.

A sad but true reflection of either Mark (epyphonous) or Matthew (same) brilliant literature is as it seems.. literature.

The Johns history and gospel character is but a story in a period over 100 years

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
December 18, 2012 1:20am

A small correction: Scheherazade did not tell 1,001 tales. She told tales over the course of 1,001 nights. Many of her tales took many nights to tell, so that there were far fewer tales than nights. You are correct, however, that dawn always found her recounting a tale not yet finished, so that the king allowed her to live so that he could hear the rest. After 1,001 nights and (IIRC) three babies, she asked the king to lift the death sentence (imposed for the "crime" of being female) and he replied that he had long since determined not to have her killed.

Your mistake suggests that you have not read them. I recommend them as they are highly entertaining. I especially recommend the Richard Burton translation. (The scholar, not the actor.)

Caveat: There is a profound racism throughout the tales, as well as in the unifying premise, apparently reflecting the racism of the culture.

Daniel, Spokane, WA
December 22, 2012 1:01pm

Mulan WAS real, just not in the Disney sense. I have researched her at length due to having 5 kids who are completely fascinated by her. Here is a bit of information you may find helpful. Her name was NOT Fa Mulan, it was Hua Mulan.

The Legend of Hua Mulan
Main article: Hua Mulan
The Chinese legend of Hua Mulan centers on a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her elderly father in the army. The story can be traced back to The Ballad of Mulan and Disney's Mulan casts the title character in much the same way as the original legend – a tomboy daughter of a respected veteran, somewhat troubled by not being the "sophisticated lady" her society expects her to be. In the oldest version of the story, Mulan uses her father's name Li[citation needed] and she was never discovered as a girl, unlike the film.
The earliest accounts of the legend state that she lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). However another version reports that Mulan was requested as a concubine by Emperor Yang of Sui China (reigned 604–617).[3] The fireworks featured in the movie indicate that the movie is set during the Sui dynasty.[citation needed] The film correctly omits foot binding, but includes numerous other anachronisms, such as the Ming era Forbidden City in Beijing (the Sui capital was near modern Xi'an). Though Mulan is set in northern China and employs her Mandarin personal name,[31] Disney gives her the Cantonese pronunciation (Fa) for her family name.

Tanya, Australia
March 5, 2013 3:33am

Helen of Troy: looks like it should be "almost all of its" instead of almost of of

Eric, Annapolis, MD
April 24, 2013 11:32am

My understanding was that Sheba was in what is present day Ethiopia. The legend is the Queen of Sheba took the ark of the covenant and other artifacts to her kingdom for safekeeping. The Shrine of the Ark of the Covenant in Axum, Ethiopia is the supposed resting place of the ark.

Brian, Raleigh, NC
August 1, 2013 9:12am

There are very many legends of the arks and the people who are associated with them.

Suffice to say, in the case of solomon he may be a minimal as an aggrandisation of a human in Salem's guise .

Given that the history of the period was externally redacted @500BCE (or later), the myth is beatiful.

But with the same myth applying to Sheba/Lilith, I wouldnt be anything but entertained by a magic box thieving empress.

Please note the tradition and texts of the people who claim this (dating purposed).

Macaque Doper, sin city, Oz
August 1, 2013 9:53pm

You forgot Jenny Haniver. ;)

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
August 15, 2013 10:18am

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